There are obvious dangers inherent in events such as the Reno Air Races. The victims of the disaster were undoubtedly aware of those dangers and attended the event anyway. Does that mean they should not be able to file lawsuits to obtain compensation for their loss?
Not at all.
Granted, Life is Full of Risks
There are risks involved in most everything. We take a chance every time we cross the street. But it’s nonetheless reasonable for us to believe we will be safe when we are in the crosswalk. When we use the crosswalk, we are where we are supposed to be.
If an SUV hits someone in the crosswalk, we may all agree it was “just an accident.” Yet, we require the driver to compensate the pedestrian for his injuries. If the driver couldn’t see the pedestrian because the crosswalk was poorly designed, we might require the city to compensate the pedestrian. In either case, we don’t tell the pedestrian that he is out of luck because he assumed the risks of getting hit by a car.
It doesn’t matter that the driver had a very good driving record up to that point in time. While we don’t punish those responsible for an accident, we do hold them accountable and require them to compensate the person who, through no fault of their own, is seriously hurt.
The victims at Reno undoubtedly understood that there were risks associated with the Air Races. But they were exactly where they were supposed to be. Sure, the crash was an accident. But that doesn’t mean whoever is responsible for the injuries – whether that is a mechanic or a course designer -- shouldn’t compensate the victims for their losses.
The Race Sponsors Were Supposed to Provide Patrons with a Safe Viewing Area
Some say that Nevada law lets sponsors off the hook for injuries to spectators. And it's true that, in Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entertainment, the Nevada Supreme Court said that a baseball stadium was not responsible for serious injuries a fan sustained when she was struck by a foul ball. But in that case, the fan was not in the viewing area. Had the fan been injured in a viewing area, the result might have been different. That’s because the court recognized that a ballpark has a duty to provide the patrons with at least some designated safe seating.
Once a stadium owner or operator complies with the rule's requirements by providing sufficient protected seating, the owner or operator has satisfied the legal duty of protection owed to its patrons.
The Reno Air Race victims were in the designated viewing area. They were exactly where they were supposed to be. But it appears that the sponsors failed to ensure that the area was safe. Turner v. Mandalay would thus seem to support the victims’ claims for compensation, not undercut it.
The Language on the Ticket Is Not a Contract
A reader of this post noted that, according to the tickets sold for the event, the spectators voluntarily assumed all the risks and released the event sponsors from liability for any injuries. Isn’t that the end of the matter?
Sure, a spectator can, by contract, agree ahead of time not to sue if he is injured, even if the person who caused the injury was negligent. But for there to be a contract, there has to be an agreement. If the spectator actually signed something, then that would be one thing. Without the victim’s signature, the fine print on the ticket won’t be binding on anyone.